A mysterious trapezoid was just decoded by a historian, taken from ancient Babylonian astronomical tablets. The findings suggest that Babylonian astronomers had calculated the movements of Jupiter using an ancient form of geometric calculus. Keep in mind that this is approximately 1500 years before we thought this type of math was invented by the Europeans.
The tablet was translated by astroarcheologist Matthieu Ossendrijver of Humbolt University in Berlin, and it means that not only were ancient Mesopotamian astronomers able to figure out how to predict Jupiter’s paths more than 1,000 years before the first telescope even existed. They were using extremely advanced mathematical techniques that actually formed the foundations of modern day calculus.
The tablet is one out of hundreds that have been excavated during the 19th century. Experts have beem working for more than a century to try and decode all of they. The tables are from 100-200 BC.
It turns out that the Babylonians were tracing the trajectory of Jupiter in a specific amount of time. They did this by measuring its speed every single day, and by using a very advanced geometric ‘shortcut’ that allowed them to measure the planet’s speed on the first and 60th day of the measurements, which gave them the distance it travelled.
“This would open up new ways of computing motion they could have applied to other planets, other parts of Jupiter’s motion..We don’t have examples of that…We only have these four tablets and they all deal with Jupiter – and they all deal with the same segment of 60 days. That’s quite strange.” (source)
By calculating the area inside of the trapezoid, ancient astronomers could find out where the planet would be in the sky. This is the same link between velocity and displacement taught in introductory calculus classes.
New Scientist points out that Scholars at Oxford’s Merton College and in Paris during the 14th century are “typically credited with the same insight about velocity and displacement. They even connected it to the trapezoid shape. These ideas were the antecedents of the calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz – but the Babylonians had them far earlier.”